By Katherine L. Szerdy
"Kath, the Commanding Officer of the 3/25 called me this morning. He's looking for someone to contact a young Marine interested in the Naval Academy. This one's a unique situation, however." My job as a Blue and Gold Officer, a regional admissions liaison, for the United States Naval Academy, includes assisting candidates as they work through the candidacy and nomination process. Major Chris Gideons, the Marine Corps Commanding Officer of our regional recruiting station continued, "You may have seen his story on the news. This is the Marine who served with his brother in Iraq until his brother was killed. The Marine's name is L Cpl Eric Montgomery. His CO tells me that he has an outstanding record and comes highly recommended. Do you think you could work with him?"
"Of course, I'd be honored!" I remembered seeing the story of Eric and his older brother, LCpl Brian Montgomery, on the national and local news just a couple of months previous. During the Summer of 2005, their Marine Reserve unit, the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, out of northeast Ohio, had taken a heavy toll, with 48 Marines having given their lives for their country and dozens more injured. Brian and Eric's unit was deployed to Iraq in February, and they served together until the middle of July when Brian's unit was sent out on a mission. On the morning of August 1, just two days before his son Alexander's first birthday, Brian emailed Eric that he had spoken to his wife Pam and Alexander and that all was fine. Later that morning, Eric was called into his Commanding Officer's quarters and informed that L Cpl Brian Montgomery was killed in action, his unit having come under attack by insurgents. Eric served as escort to his brother's body on the long journey back to Willoughby, Ohio.
Eric captured the attention of the news media with his desire to return to Iraq out of his sense of duty to his country and to his platoon...despite having just buried his brother, even after his own experience in harm's way. As the parents had only the two sons, the Marine Corps would not sanction Eric's return at the time. And now, just two months later, he was applying to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in order to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps.
Another of my duties as a Blue and Gold Officer includes providing the Naval Academy's Admissions Board with a narrative of the initial interview indicating impressions of the candidate's character, as well as academic and athletic fitness for the rigorous four-year academic and military leadership program. From our first meeting, I determined that this bright, well-spoken Marine had the energy, drive, and passion to serve his country as an officer. I learned that the two brothers had been very close. When it became apparent that Brian might be called up for deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, Eric, then a sophomore at Ohio University, was not about to let his brother go without him, and so he enlisted with the same reserve unit, making his brother proud by graduating first in his platoon from boot camp and first in his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) class.
Now Eric sports a black metal band around his wrist engraved with "LCpl. Brian P. Montgomery, USMC * KIA 8/1/05." When I asked him about it, he told me, "HeroBracelets.org" and emphasized, "I wear this because I don't ever want my brother to be forgotten or for his sacrifice to ever be taken for granted." I asked him if he would mind if I ordered one as well. He told me that he and his family would be very moved by such a gesture.
I observed over the next few weeks that Eric enjoyed spending as much time as possible with his nephew Alexander, and instead of taking a girlfriend to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, he invited Pam. I envisioned that, granted an appointment to Annapolis, Eric would serve as an outstanding role model, helping to raise the bar of military excellence for his fellow midshipmen simply through his example. At this point, I deemed my mission as doing everything I could to get the Admissions Board to recognize the potential I saw in this worthy young Marine.
Little did I know then that this mission would also demand that I finally confront my own faith crisis. Just one year before, my own son, Darren, a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps and graduate of the Naval Academy, served in Fallujah, Iraq. I remember spending many sleepless nights in prayer for the protection and safety of my son and his battalion. Without my faith, I am not sure I could have survived that year. Yet, when the 3/25 was hit so hard, I knew that their loved ones must have been praying just as hard for their sons and daughters. War casualties are certainly not determined by a divine roll of the dice. I could not believe that the fact that my son returned home alive, but Brian did not, was God somehow playing favorites. War often compels us to wrestle with our faith. Where was God in all of this? Having the opportunity to work with Eric and come to know his family resurrected this faith crisis for me again. I prayed that God would help me find the answer.
Every Christmas, my women's Bible Study group at Parkside Church looks for a family to support, and this year, I suggested Brian's 24-year-old widow, Pam, and Alexander, his now 16-month-old son. Moved by their story, they readily agreed and generously donated enough to try to make the holiday season a bit brighter for them both.
Two days before Christmas, I had the blessing of playing Santa Claus. The gold star adorning the front door of the Montgomery home was not the star of Bethlehem; instead, this gold star flag honored the sacrifice of Brian, replacing the double blue star servicemen's flag of both sons just a few months previous. As Paul and Loren, Eric's Dad and Step mom, greeted me at the door, I caught my first glimpse of Pam, scrambling around trying to find a diaper with which to change Alexander who was carefully pecking out "tunes" on the living room piano.
Strawberry-blonde hair tousled, blue eyes twinkling, Alexander gave me the impression of being a happy baby, gingerly touching every object of his curiosity. He reminded me of my own Marine who as a baby loved to kinesthetically engage with everything in the world around him. Paul indicated that Brian had been the same way.
While Pam changed Alexander's diapers, Paul offered to help me bring in the load from my car, crate after crate of toys lovingly donated by my Bible Study group. As Alexander's Grandpa, Paul was overwhelmed with the generosity of my friends. "I just can't believe this," he softly spoke with tears in his eyes as he unloaded each package from my arms. After changing Alexander, Pam's eyes grew wide as she glimpsed the stack of gifts covering the living room carpet. "Look, Alexander, there are so many presents we can't even walk in here!"
With Alexander's diaper changed, all of us moved into the family room to sit down, walking past the Congressional Citation commemorating the sacrifice of their son, husband, father, and the official Marine Corps photograph portraits of Brian and Eric prominently hanging on the wall. As we made ourselves comfortable, I began sharing with Pam, a pretty brunette sporting a USMC sweatshirt, how the women in my Bible Study chose her and Alexander with whom to share Christmas as a way of honoring their sacrifice. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she pulled out the card's enclosure, a check to help her with living expenses.
I began recounting with Pam all of the amazing coincidences which I encountered during the past few days - the chance encounter at an Italian bistro with Jim "Doc" Alluny, a Corpsman with the 3/25 Marines. "Doc," who had overheard me sharing Eric and Brian's story with friends, told me that he had been Brian and Eric's bunk mate until he was seriously injured in a similar insurgent attack around the time that Brian was killed. I recounted to Pam how, when I walked over to Doc's table, he had to ask me to speak in his other ear as his one ear was deafened in the attack. As I knelt down to speak to him, I noticed one deep scar near his neck alluding to the severity and extent of his numerous injuries. He asked me to be sure to give Pam his best and to give her a message for him. "Tell her that Brian was such a good friend, the finest of Marines. I miss him dearly and I will never forget him. Tell her that for me, will you?" Pam was excited to hear about Doc, that he was up and around and getting on with life. Eyes glistening, she recalled, "Doc was one of those injured around the same time as Brian was killed. He was one of three Docs' I knew at the 3/25 - all the Corpsmen are called "˜Doc,' according to Brian."
Handing Pam the next envelope, I told her about the chance conversation at school with my coworker, Melanie Pearn, over the black metal band hero bracelet. "I knew him!" Mel had been friends with Pam and Brian but had lost touch, and upon discovering my connection to the family, wanted me to deliver a note to Pam conveying her desire to get back in touch.
Next, I gave Pam the festive gift bag, a donation from a local Day Spa and Salon and told her the story about my conversation with the Donations Coordinator, Jean, who just so happened to have also been a friend of Pam's, and who, like Mel, desired to reconnect. Jean remembered that Pam loved pedicures and arranged a gift certificate for me to present to Pam along with a note with her contact information. Of all the tens of thousands of business establishments in northeastern Ohio, I just happened to have walked into the one where Pam worked with Jean four years ago! A coincidence? I don't think so.
The last gift I gave to Pam was my gift for Alexander, a children's Bible, the same one I had used to train up my own boys. Moved to tears, Pam hugged me tight as we both sobbed.
As I sat there with Pam, it began to dawn on me that God was revealing His nature, His unfailing love for each one of us--that over the past few days God had so beautifully orchestrated each of these synchronicities as an encouragement to the Montgomery family, and also to help answer the question that had troubled my heart these past few months. Through the generosity of these Christian women and the so-called chance encounters with three old friends, God shed the light of the Star of Bethlehem into the lives of this family who had paid such a high price. God was showing the Montgomery's and me that He always has been and will remain near us, concerned about us, comforting and loving us through our trials, walking beside us as our companion.
Realizing his lifelong dream, L Cpl Eric Montgomery deservedly was awarded an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, and after his four years at Annapolis, hopes to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. Somehow I believe that on Induction Day, June 28, 2006, Brian was there proudly watching over his little brother as he raised his right hand to swear the Induction Oath.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer selected the photograph of one-year-old Alexander Montgomery in a perfect Marine dress blues uniform reaching out to his Daddy's flag draped coffin as one of the top news photos of 2006.
Katherine L. Sze